September 26, 2012

Japanese books pulled out of Chinese bookstores


China and Japan’s territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands — which Wikipedia poignantly describes as “five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks” — is starting to have an effect on the book business: the Japan Times reports that major bookstores in Beijing have stopped selling books by Japanese authors, including Haruki Murakami’s newest tome 1Q84. (And since Murakami has a large Chinese following, I can almost hear the bookseller groans from here.) This comes from up top: the Ashai Shimbun reported last week that,

On Sept. 17, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press and Publication, which oversees publishers in the capital, summoned editors at publishing houses that handle books by Japanese writers, according to sources in the industry.

After explaining the intensifying squabble with Japan, a senior bureau official told the editors they “should unify ideas and grasp a (political) direction.”

“We participants took it as a suggestion that we should refrain from releasing and selling books related to Japan,” one of the editors said.

This gentle “refraining from” includes “works by Japanese authors, publications by Chinese writers on themes surrounding Japan and Japanese publications translated into Chinese.” In other words, a head-in-the-sand, fingers-in-the-ears policy.

This has led me to think about the whole, oft-revisited question of why it seems so awful when books are destroyed (a separate question from why it seems wrong to ban books, but one leads on to the other). See for instance this video of a high school teacher destroying a copy of Fahrenheit 451, and the gasps of horror it produces in his students. According to the comments, someone named Ashlee cried. She should talk to Salman Rushdie.

The immediate, obvious answer is that so much is invested in them — both the contents and the container represent a million decisions, the bringing-together of different skills, of knowledge gained over time, of many thoughts and hours on the part of their makers. But I was wondering if the visceral reaction comes from something a little bit more specific. I was wondering if it’s the very durability of books, not their fragility, as you might expect, that makes their destruction so agonizing to watch.

Left alone, a book will last for a long time. If you use it heavily, if it’s left out in the rain, if it’s a British book from the last ten years or so, its usable life drops off fast. If you stick them to a giant plywood ring and put them in your shop window, as Anthropologie has done, or put a stake through them and hang them from your ceiling as a beloved downtown indie bookstore, that shall for the moment remain nameless and I’m sure they’re not the only one who has done this trendy book-on-stake thing, has also done, their usable life — well, it decreases a little bit. But because the book is essentially a sturdy little thing, it takes deliberation and effort to destroy it. And the destruction of something that might otherwise stay just as it is stamps all over the corns of our understanding of the way the universe works.

I hope the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press and Publication will fund my further elaboration of this theory, with all Japanese examples, in a beautiful new Chinese edition. But I’m not holding my breath.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.